A Species That Loves to Love

by Brendan I. Koerner

If you haven't yet read Jon Lee Anderson's latest New Yorker dispatch from Sri Lanka, you're missing out on something special. Per the always, Anderson's reporting is top-notch—his description of meeting a shattered women condemned to death by the Tamil Tigers has stuck with me for weeks now. More importantly, the piece makes a convincing case that the only way to "win" a counter-insurgency campaign is to resort to sheer brutality—a move guaranteed to lead to generations of hostility, rather than any meaningful sense of reconciliation.

The snippet I'd like to call out for your attention, though, is one of Anderson's throwaway observations. While discussing Sri Lanka's primary ethnic division, between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, he briefly delves into the racial myth that has helped make the schism so deep:

Sinhalese nationalists trace their lineage to Aryan tribes of northern India, despite the lack of evidence to support the idea. Although intermarriage across language barriers was fairly common, especially among the upper castes, Sinhalese politicians by the early twentieth century had become infused with racialist theories on "Aryanism" then being promulgated in Europe. Anagarika Dharmapala, the leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival movement that began under British colonial rule, said, in a frequently quoted speech, "This bright, beautiful island was made into Paradise by the Aryan Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals (i.e. the Tamils)."

In fact, as noted here, intermarriage has been commonplace in Sri Lanka since at least the time of Buddha. Though Tamils and Sinhalese may be separated by language, they are bound together by genetics in ways that ardent nationalists would prefer to ignore.

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But as we hone the craft of divining heritage by peering at DNA, will such vile racial myths become harder to perpetuate?

I tackled this issue many moons ago, in a piece for Wired about the Freedmen of Oklahoma. As the story details, Native American tribes had black members during the 19th and early 20th century, but the descendants of these "Freedmen" are now largely denied tribal citizenship because their ancestors weren't included on the Dawes Rolls. To bolster their case, many of those descendants have resorted to DNA testing in order to prove their Native American lineage. The tests have often revealed something we all know to be true on some level, but too seldom discuss: A person's phenotype tells us precious little about their ancestry. Check out the story's great photographs and you'll see what I mean; I'd wager dollars to donuts that no one can guess what the DNA tests revealed about each subject's ancestral background. (Hint: A lot of people discovered that they were much more "European" than they'd ever imagined possible.)

Such tests are still in their infancy, and I remain skeptical that major advances are just a few years away. But at some point in our lifetimes, we will be able to analyze DNA to get a much better sense of where our ancestors were residing many centuries ago, and what they may have looked like. And the ultimate takeaway from that intelligence will be that disparate human populations have been sharing genes for millennia, a revelation that will undermine arguments that attempt to link nationalism with racial or ethnic purity. Because how can a politician make a successful Dharmapala-style speech if everyone in his target audience possesses concrete evidence that they are really no different than the "other" being demonized?

Chris Rock once noted (and I'm paraphrasing in family-friendly terminology here) that the key to future social harmony is for interracial couples to become the norm. But if you focus the lens down to the genetic level, it becomes apparent that such pairings have actually been the norm since antiquity—or, to put it in more colloquial terms, we've always loved to love. Hopefully the advent of sharper and more ubiquitous DNA testing will make it increasingly difficult for wicked leaders to deny that basic fact about our species.